The musicians

Buoyed by the success of The Next Day, David Bowie began planting the seeds for a follow-up. In 2013 he sang on Arcade Fire’s song ‘Reflektor’, and the following March reportedly reached out to Claudia Linnear –the inspiration for ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ – to discuss working together. Although that project came to nothing, in early 2014 Bowie did begin planning the musical Lazarus.

I knew he wanted to do another one. He wanted to almost as soon as The Next Day was finished, but there was a lack of material, so he waited… Whenever he calls me it’s always a surprise because there’s no leading up to it, there’s no hint, it’s just ‘I’m ready’ – that’s the kind of phone call I get.
Tony Visconti
Mojo, January 2016

In May 2014, Bowie contacted New York-based jazz bandleader Maria Schneider, and the pair discussed a collaboration. On 1 June, on her recommendation, he saw saxophonist and flautist Donny McCaslin’s modern jazz quartet perform at the 55 Bar in Manhattan.

I was definitely nervous. I glanced up and saw where he was sitting. I just tried to keep myself grounded and not think about it. But the pressure was on.

[We] were going for it. It wasn’t a watered-down version of what we do. Afterwards Bowie said: ‘Wow, that was really loud!’

Donny McCaslin
The Guardian, 4 October 2016

McCaslin’s band contained three other core musicians that played on Blackstar: keyboard player Jason Lindner, bass guitarist Tim Lefebvre, and drummer Mark Guiliana.

One thing that stands out to me is what we did – me, Tim, Mark and Jason – we do in fact do a lot of improvisation and we always feed off each other. It’s just this constant conversation, and that’s where we try to find the magic with the music we’re playing, be it my tunes or Bowie’s songs. That’s such a part of the whole jazz thing, right? The interaction and the storytelling you create as a band. And then David was right in there doing that, too, and I felt like that was really captured in the finished product, and I think that’s really special.

It’s not like it was this pre-programmed whatever. We were playing live, and we’re playing off each other. You can hear the interaction and you can hear the spirit of the communication in these fantastic songs. And David, he’s singing his tail off, and hearing it all together was really a thrill to me.

Donny McCaslin, 20 January 2016

In the month he saw McCaslin’s band perform, Bowie recorded demos of five new songs at Manhattan’s Magic Shop studio, with Tony Visconti producing and Zachary Alford on drums. Bowie then took the recordings home and continued work, writing new material and recording more demos for songs which would appear on Blackstar.

It started out with demos last year, June, and we spent a couple of days in the studio, fooled around with a few concepts and got five songs done. He also brought in demos. This is a new thing because he writes a lot at home now.

Some had lyrics, which is unusual, he usually likes to keep that to the very end, but they were quite well-formed and sophisticated. We didn’t do it all in one batch. We started recording with the band in January this year [2015] and did the first four songs, and that would be a song a day.

Tony Visconti
Mojo, January 2016

On 24 July, the month after he saw McCaslin’s band in New York, Bowie recorded the first version of ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’. He was backed by the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, which featured among its players McCaslin, Guiliana, and Blackstar guitarist Ben Monder.

For years he wanted to work with Maria Schneider, the composer, and she has a 17- or 19-piece big band. After the sessions that led to the big band version of ‘Sue’, she said, ‘Check out Donny McCaslin’s group. He’s got an amazing group, based in New York.’ Donny is the solo saxophone player on ‘Sue’ – it’s one of the most soulful saxophone solos David and I ever heard. It always made us weep, especially the end part. He’s such a passionate player. So David went to a nightclub in New York – I had the date in my calendar but I completely missed that show… anyway, David saw Donny’s band and was totally convinced that he wanted to work with them.
Tony Visconti
Mojo, January 2016

Lindner, Lefebvre and Guiliana had all performed on McCaslin’s 2014 album Casting For Gravity. The four players were a well-established unit by the time Bowie brought them on board, which smoothed the path for the creation of Blackstar.

This is where David and Tony were smart, because he made it less tricky to try and acquire studio chemistry. He hired Donny’s whole band. We walked in and we all already knew how to play together. So for David, there was no work involved in trying to establish a groove, because it was already there.
Tim Lefebvre, 20 January 2016

In contrast to The Next Day, which had been a relatively straightforward rock album, Blackstar had elements of hip hop, drum and bass, and modern jazz in its sonic palette. A key influence was Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly.

We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar. We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll.
Tony Visconti
Rolling Stone, 23 November 2015

Other influences included D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, experimental rap trio Death Grips, and electronic duo Boards of Canada. McCaslin’s band had recorded a cover version of the latter band’s ‘Alpha & Omega’ on Casting For Gravity.

The record has kind of been pitched as “David Bowie hires a jazz quintet,” but it’s not really that at all. It’s not a jazz record in the slightest. And all of those guys, they’re really versatile and I think their rock playing is as strong as any other aspect of their playing. They’re known as improvising musicians, and they’re known within the jazz umbrella more than anything else. But I think the songs really brought out their strengths as rock musicians here. And in terms of us coming up with our own parts, David and Tony gave us a lot of freedom there.
Ben Monder, 20 January 2016